We Asked an Expert Why America's Naval Vessels Keep Crashing

A veteran guided-missile destroyer commander weighs in on the latest US navy accident—and what it means for the North Korea situation.

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Aug 21 2017, 9:00pm

The U.S.S. John S. McCain after a collision near Singapore. 

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

Early Monday morning, the USS John Sidney McCain, a guided-missile destroyer named after the Arizona senator's father and grandfather, collided with an oil tanker off the coast of Singapore. At least five sailors were injured, and ten more are missing, with the remainder of the crew making it ashore from the battered ship. The accident marked the second time in almost exactly two months that the Navy has made headlines for a dangerous accident; a June collision involving the USS Fitzgerald killed seven sailors and resulted in three of the vessel's senior commanders being reassigned.

These accidents in Asian waters come amid a time of tension between President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong-un, which may now have a warhead capable of nuking the United States. Trump has been making noise for months now about alleged military neglect under his predecessor, Barack Obama, vowing to do something about it. Trump's initial response to the latest accident consisted of the words "That's too bad," in response to a reporter's question, though he released a more serious statement later on Twitter.

For a sense of how these accidents happen, what they mean for the military, and how they might impact a volatile region, I reached out to Bryan McGrath, a retired US naval officer who once commanded a guided-missile destroyer. The founding managing director of the FerryBridge Group, a Navy-national security consulting firm, McGrath is also deputy director of the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, a think tank based in Washington.

Here's what we talked about.

VICE: How unusual is it for any major Navy ship—US or otherwise—to collide with or crash into another vessel like this?
Bryan McGrath: If you take all the navies worldwide and all the collisions worldwide it's probably one a year, I would think. That's just a guess.

Can you recall anything like this in your career as a Navy commander or in history where there was a weird series of accidents that cropped up in a narrow stretch of time?
Anyone who has spent any significant period of time at sea coming in and out of the world's most heavily trafficked ports have stories of close calls. But the reason we have the International Rules of the Road is so close calls stay close calls and don't become collisions, and if those ships follow those rules, it is—to my professional opinion—impossible to collide.

How do these crashes happen? Is it just a matter of one person making a terrible mistake?
It requires a series of failures. The Navy refers to it as an error chain. There are just far too many people with portions of the picture or the complete picture for one person's negligence or professional failing to cause something like this. In virtually every investigation I've ever seen, there are a series of compounding errors that get worse the closer you get to the collision. It's always a very sad thing to read these, because you can see at any point along the way if this act had not happened, that the collision could have been avoided.

Does the chief of naval operations (CNO), Admiral John Richardson, calling for a sweeping review of the Pacific Fleet's readiness strike you as the right approach here?
There are required legal investigations that stem from this incident at sea. Those will start, those will find fault, those will render opinions, and a competent authority will render judgment at some point.

The operational pause is something that the CNO as the uniformed leader of the Navy has put out so that the entire fleet gets the message that business as usual is not acceptable anymore. The ships have to take a day to think deeply and get their teams together and work through procedures and talk about how you align yourself and all the things that go into safe navigation.

If you're deeply involved in an operation—if you're tracking a Chinese submarine, if you're on missile defense station versus North Korea, you'll do your operational pause when it makes operational sense. The commanders have the ability to allow the ships to do the pause or stand down when it makes sense.

This investigation Admiral Richardson announced is more of a deep systemic view that attempts to look at a series of several different accidents in the Pacific Fleet over the course of the past year and was attempting not to look at them in isolation but to look at them to see if there are systemic issues that have to be addressed.

You mentioned North Korea, which is one of the things I wanted to ask about. Does something like this accident—coming on the heels of another one—give you any pause or concern given the heightened tensions?
I am concerned that over the course of about 25 years the operational edge of the Navy has dulled. That was acceptable when threats at sea and the threats to the nation were less and the United States was a hyperpower and there was nobody to challenge us at sea or challenge our maritime interests. But those days are over. There are two great powers and a couple of lesser powers that are attempting to knock over our apple cart. And the Navy has suffered from a lack of that sort of singular operational focus that it had during the Cold War. And it has frayed around the edges in the absence of such a primary focus.

The inconsistent and unpredictable funding streams that the Navy has to use to fund its maintenance and its training and its modernization over the course of the years when we haven't had actual defense budgets and we've been operating with continuing resolutions—all this stuff rolls into the mix along with higher op tempo driven by the threats in the Pacific. What happens is the ships are spread more thinly, they have less time to do the unit-level training—the blocking and tackling, if you will—into which safe navigation fits very neatly.

So I suspect there is some fraying that needs to be addressed. And this panel that Admiral Richardson has directed the Fleet Forces Command Admiral [Phil] Davidson to head will go right at those kinds of things.

To what extent could another Navy navigational mishap like these two cause an international incident?
That's a little bit further down the line. Professionalism and proper seamanship and navigation are the table stakes of being a world power and a trading power. Mariners recognize that mistakes sometimes happen. Sometimes your navigation picture might be off and you happen to cross into someone's 12-mile territorial limits. In general, those don't cause international incidents.

I feel pretty confident right now that the North Koreans are studiously patrolling their 12-mile limit, and if an American ship rolled into 12 miles, things could be dicey. We haven't been seeing that kind of thing. We've seen these collisions and groundings, and I hope against all hope that the actions Admiral Richardson is taking—and a real dedication to renewed professionalism—can turn this around. Because the US Navy is important, and there are a lot of things this country relies on a dominant Navy to do. It needs to take care of its knitting right now so it can get back to the business of doing those things.

Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.

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